A Mirror For Mantra

by C. D. Lee

Table of Contents

Chapter Nine

The Heart of Darkness

"Through paths unknown
Thy soul has flown,
To seek the realms of woe,
Where fiery pain
Shall purge the stain
Of actions done below."
- Sir Walter Scott


Mantra flying over the countryside
(Click on image for larger version)

My mask-charm acts like a witching wand for tracing lost accouterments, and so I've learned to carry it with me at all times. On this occasion the talisman was drawing me north, into a high-rent district on the east side of San Francisco. The device's luminesce reached its maximum over a manorial-style house surrounded by stone walls and swept by floodlights. It was at this point, also, that I registered several moving auras below, which judging by their size, either had to be human beings -- probably guards -- or a small tribe of gorillas roaming free.

Like Strauss, Grimoire had protected his digs with sorcery. This, as revealed by my wizard-sight, resembled an animated wickerwork of worms crawling over the roof and walls of the main house. The weave was close, but, once in a while, a woman-size lattice would briefly open.

Eschewing the impulse to use force -- which would surely set off a mystical alarm -- I instead tweaked it with sorcery, striving to retard its flow without triggering any magical trip wires. My ploy seemed to be working and when the next large gap yawned open I dove!

Normally, passing phantasmally through solid objects produces a tickle from my toes up to my hair-roots, but I didn't feel like laughing -- not this time. I was in deadly earnest to retrieve my stolen mask. Without it, I was operating at a reduced power level, and it was a sure bet that I wouldn't have the magical strength to find a way back home without it. As it was, I had serious reservations whether I had the necessary power to sneak into Grimoire's lair without getting captured again, but the circumstances had left me little choice in the matter.

Drawn along by the talisman, I bypassed a series of descending levels and didn't rein up until I reached a stygian level -- a sub-basement underlying the sprawling mansion. The amulet's tug now ceased, although the bright glow persisted.

The darkened cellars were permeated by heavy magical musk; certainly enough warning to put any competent sorcerer on her guard. I also thought I heard a faint jingle -- the rattle of distant chains, perhaps? I scowled at the repulsive odor of something charnel that wasn't psychical in nature but all too disgustingly real.

Readying myself for trouble, I paused in the darkness to pluck the magical ring from my cingulum and restored the Sword of Fangs. A truly awesome weapon, the sword is unbreakable, razor sharp, and as light as aluminum. I've long suspected that there's more to my mystical blade than meets the eye, but this time I had to use it like a simple blind man's staff to probe the unseen floor ahead, lest a stumble mar Eden's shins with an unsightly bruise, to say nothing of attracting the wrong kind of attention. Although I might have conjured a witch-light, the less magic I use in an enemy's stronghold means the less chance I have of being detected.

I hadn't advanced far before the blade struck a door panel with a hollow thump. I groped blindly until I found the knob and gave it a twist. The mechanism was locked but not magically-reinforced, and so ten seconds of sorcerous manipulation was rewarded with an agreeable "click." I probably could have done it faster, but I needed to be careful to avoid using too much magic and being detected by whatever alarms my host had in place.

I entered a small storeroom full of junk-laden shelves, boxes, and a French Empire-style cabinet, the latter surrounded by the now customary magical force-field. The mask had to be inside the cupboard; I no longer needed the charm to feel its familiar mystical pattern emanating from the interior.

Attacking another wizard's handiwork is always fraught with danger -- usually in the form of magical alarms, curses, and traps of all kinds. Sometimes a world-class wizard will do something truly mind-boggling, like endowing some nearby statue with enough animating energy to bash a hapless burglar. (I jest not; it happened to me once upon a time in Burma.) But since such crafting clever magical traps remains beyond my own current skill-level, I suspected that it lay beyond Grimoire's, too. Therefore, sucking in a deep breath of the rank air and hoping for luck, I summoned up my best magical jimmy and set to work.

As I did so, I found myself wondering how exactly I was going to deal with D'Epee once I had him subdued. Knowing the man, more or less, some part of me shied away from judging him as harshly as he probably deserved. As Mantra, hadn't I occasionally done some ruthless things, to say nothing of back when I was Lukasz? Maybe it was the same with Grimoire -- and at least he was safeguarding the world against Boneyard indirectly while protecting himself. But that begged the question, if I preserved the status quo, who would protect the world from Grimoire?

Maybe UltraForce would, but I've never been one to stand by and let other people fight my battles.

The force-field suddenly blinked out, after which the doors unlatched easily. I spotted my mask lying amid a lot of artifacts and relics, most of which appeared to have some type of mystic or religious significance -- everything from oriental figurines to African necklaces. Most of these objects were a-shimmer with strong magical auras, but their potential usefulness hardly interested me. With a feeling of solid accomplishment and immense relief, I took my recovered property into both hands and fitted it to my face, immediately experiencing the familiar-but-always-refreshing surge of vigor and vitality.

So far, so good.

#

At this point I might have bailed out and gone back to Strauss, but in my moment of success I was unwilling to decamp before found out a few things. For one, who or what was Grimoire keeping chained up? I've endured the cold, darkness, and filth of many a dungeon in my time, and so have developed a strong sympathy for incarcerated innocents. I also had a morbid interest in determining the source of that ominous smell. In any case, I thought I should make sure that Grimoire wasn't holding anyone else illegally -- but, as the Bard says, "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly."

Returning to the outer corridor, I dared to create a small magical lamp, under whose illumination a second, larger door studded with many rusty bolt-heads stood out. The closer I got to it, the denser the corpse-like odor. Nonetheless, whatever secrets it concealed, the portal opened easily enough.

Gods, what a stench! -- worse than the windward side a Napoleonic cavalry camp! Covering my nose and mouth, I saw to my right a half-dozen doors with the sinister appearance of dungeon cells, but, as best as I could make out, the odor originated within the large alcove off to the left.

Advancing quick to port, I quickly ascertained that the alcove floor was a pit lined with stone blocks and filled with a thick, griseous fluid. On its edge rested several sacks labeled "Calcium Oxide" -- "quicklime" in old-speech.

This was no construction site, so I shuddered to think what the corrosive chemical had been applied to. Although from the stench of death in the air, I certainly had a pretty good guess. The lime must have already seen a lot of use -- and judging from the stink of the pit, it was well overdue for a recharge. Wasting no time, I projected a force-field to the bottom of the cistern and there manipulated it like a makeshift dredge. The sight of the mess I brought up made me want to retch.

Over the course of my fifteen centuries, I had seen death in all its myriad incarnations, but only seldom had I beheld a scene as gruesome as the one before me. Nobody deserved to die like this. Disgusted, I dropped the hash of half-dissolved human bones back into the tank, absolutely determined to liberate any victim that I might find wasting away in the madman's power. "Is anyone here?!" I called out, somewhat taken aback by the hysterical tenor of my returning echoes.

The single-word answer that came back to me might have been "Who?" or maybe it was just "Uhh!" Relieved to find some sign of life in this place of death, I rushed to find the source of the outcry.

#

Ascertaining which door the reply had come from, I went phantasmal again and stepped through, simultaneously creating another light to see by. I knew instantly that I had barged into a dungeon cell, since a prisoner sat huddled against the far wall, an ankle-fettered old black man. His clothes, ala Good Will, suggested a street person -- a "bum" as we would have called him in the good old days.

Shielding his eyes from my light, he muttered, "Oh, Lawd! You an angel? You gonna take me?"

"I'm no angel," I told him, dimming my candlepower to spare him discomfort. "But I'm also no enemy of yours. Do you know who did this to you?"

"Some big dudes in army surplus dragged me outta my digs," he yammered, too scared to lie. "Don't remember much mo' till dey tossed me in here. Dis ain't some new kind o' tank, is it, Angel Pie?"

My skin crawled. I could guess why Grimoire's goons had wanted this man. He was the perfect victim for a dark rite -- much more logical than the teenaged babes that Hollywood directors usually cast in horror movies. Even Boneyard, with all the resources of a medieval-style kingdom at his command, wasn't fussy about the looks, age, or sex of his victims. A life is a life on the occult plane, but the old man represented a type that no one would miss -- no family, cop, or social worker would ever make serious inquiry about a missing derelict; ditto for the very street people among whom he drifted.

Why had D'Epee done this? I had been proud to be a knight of Archimage and found it hard to believe that any one of us could ever sink so low. Then I remembered Thanasi's attempted murder of Eden and Evie and had to face the fact that more than one of us hard-bitten warriors might have been cursed with a heart of darkness.

I opened the cell door to give the prisoner better air. "Listen," I said, standing over him, "I'm not an angel, I'm not Death. I'm an ultra like Prime -- only, uh, prettier. Once I get you out, I'm coming back here and make damned sure that no one else is ever treated the way you were."

"Too bad you won't be able to keep your promise," challenged a voice which I instantly recognized as Grimoire's.

I spun about, my shield going up almost of its own accord. I saw him, as stark as a specter in the feeble light. "You blew it," I snarled. "You should have blackjacked me like you did before! There's no way you're going to take me now that I'm ready for you!"

"Is that so?" he scoffed, his hand gliding toward his Tibetan pendant. Forewarned by Strauss, I fired a magical blast at his arm, but the man's own shielding shucked off my bolt with ease. Again, my sub-par condition caused by being drained by Grimoire that morning was brought home to me.

"You're trying to be a new Archimage," I accused through clenched teeth, "but you're just another Boneyard. -- No," I amended baitingly, "what you are is a sadistic murderer!"

He shook his head. "You don't know anything about me, but, if you like, I can introduce you to a few people who really are sadistic murderers. . . ." He snapped his fingers and three CAR-15s poked into the room. Without further banter, they opened up in a triple stream of flying steel. I flung myself back against the wall while shells ricochetted wildly from my shield. Though temporarily safe, Grimoire had me pinned down, unable to turn phantom and slip away -- not without leaving the old man behind to die.

Now Grimoire brought his pendant into the act; its shutter-like aperture opened and a magical beam lanced from its core, striking my protective shell like an arc-welder touching steel. The onslaught drained my defenses rapidly and my double-sized shield became damnably hard to maintain after the first few seconds. When D'Epee's assault played out the air crackled with my return shot -- much too feeble to do any harm.

The hail of bullets continued and Grimoire renewed his sorcerous onslaught. It was all I could do to keep my barrier from dissolving like snow under a sun lamp. I knew that the magical attack would crisp me in a few more heartbeats, or else the bullets would riddle my body the instant my defenses went down. Neither prospect seemed too appealing.

But my enemy was tiring, too, and his second attack didn't last nearly as long as the first. "Stop it, D'Epee!" I yelled when the emptied guns were briefly quelled. "You need me! I can help you!"

He wasn't listening and I knew he was about to project another energy bolt, while his three compatriots showed no signs of calling it a day. Used up, I had no choice but to go phantasmal with my last ounce of strength. The renewed blizzard of bullets whizzed through my body like smoke, but struck the man I'd been trying to protect, bouncing him left and right like a bloody rag doll.

Giving a furious shriek, I fled away through the rear wall. A few seconds later, the cacophony of gunfire stopped as they realized what had happened, and stepped in closer to verify that I had in fact left the area. However, that would prove to be a fatal miscalculation. Rather than simply turning tail and running, I used the opportunity to circle back to the corridor, coming up behind the wizard and his now unshielded "knights."

My quality of mercy doesn't come in large quantities, alas. That's why I didn't hesitate to launch a burst of mystical fire at two of the gunmen's backs -- a lethal rush of rage and hate manifested as searing heat. The knights flamed like torches, dying too quickly to have known what hit them. The third man had been sheltered by the doorway, and in fact managed to overcome his shock enough to try to get a bead on me. His move came too late, because armed with the twin advantages of surprise and the adrenaline of rage, I dispatched my would-be attacker swiftly, and viciously, with the Sword of Fangs.

Grimoire, also protected from my flame blast, now sprang out into the corridor, well-shielded and with mayhem flashing in his dark eyes. "Die, Sharon Trask!" he cried and disgorged another pendant-blast.

My own shield deflected the dazzling bolt harmlessly. Sharon Trask, huh? I'd been wondering when my persistent foe would try that gambit. D'Epee had gambled, safe enough from his point of view, that I'd been sufficiently dizzy to give him my real handle. I hadn't been.

But his use of the power-word had momentarily left him open. Already tired, his guard unconsciously relaxed for just a fraction of a second, in the process of judging whether or not his ploy had had any effect on me. In that fleeting instant of unpreparedness I retaliated.

"Lukasz!" I yelled and hurled my spell.

The sound of his own, supposedly-secret, birth-name brought Grimoire up short, upsetting his concentration even more -- just enough, in fact, to allow my energy bolt to penetrate his defensive screen and spark brightly against his narrow chest.

The man's barrier came up again as quick as thought and he hastily examined himself behind its shelter. Seemingly, he must have judged that the attack had done him no harm. -- And, for all I knew, it hadn't; I was a rank novice teetering at the brink of exhaustion; worse, the spell used had been improvised, and therefore of unknown efficacy.

Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn't.

"How did you know my name?" Grimoire demanded.

"I know your name because it's my name, too," I shouted back.

Lukasz's mistake had been in supplying me with an alias that I could immediately recognize. Hell, I had coined "Damien D'Epee" myself, and had been using periodically since the siege of Acre.

"Don't try howling it back at me, Luke," I went on, "better sorcerers than you have tried -- Boneyard, for one. My magic isn't like Archimage's and power-words can't hurt me -- and, I'm sorry to say, they don't seem to hurt you, either."

"Too bad for you!" he vaunted.

I shrugged.

Then his bitter expression suddenly morphed into a surprised scowl. "What do you mean it's your name, too?"

"You're my alternate in this dimension," I informed him. "We're the same person in different host-bodies. My wizard locked me in this chassis when he was captured, just like yours put you in that one -- the body of a psychopathic jail bird."

He shot me a look of contempt. "You're not me! That's crazy!"

"It's true!" I insisted -- stubbornly, if not proudly.

He shook his head emphatically. "You're not like me. I'd have torched myself rather than live as a woman!"

I knew otherwise, but I could understand his feelings. "No -- you'd have done exactly what I did -- let Archimage pull your strings like you were a marionette. I risked my life more than once trying to free him -- just so he'd be able to give me a man's body. The S.O.B. had rigged the game so that I'd do exactly that. This woman's counterpart isn't available in this world, or else your own Archimage would have done the same to you. Without her, he had to use the next-best wizard he knew of -- a kill-crazy hoodlum whose rotten brain corrupted the personality of his most loyal knight -- too much to be of use to him, as it turned out."

"That's a fairytale," my counterpart sneered, "but just to be on the safe side, I'm going to put you out of your misery!"

I gave a short, mirthless laugh. "I'm not in any misery," I countered. "Or not much, anyway. I know you can't see this from where you're standing, but you're worse off than me." I couldn't tell if I was getting through to him or not, but I pressed on. If there was the slightest chance that I could resolve this without resorting to violence, it was worth a try. "Look, Lukasz, you're not going to live long if you don't straighten yourself out. I'm willing to help! You can trust me not to double-cross you. In a way, we're closer than brothers."

The crimson in his hard, homely face remained undimmed: "I'll show you I'm family, bitch, by burying you!"

I wasn't up to continuing this fight and I wondered if my foe had much more stamina. This whole duel was so bizarre, so unnecessary!

And to think that I'd thought that Gus and Evie had a bad case of sibling rivalry!

 

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